Follow by Email

The Holistic Discipline of Torah Law:

"The Torah of the Compassionate One is whole" (Psalm 19:8) - The Torah is the Divine Teaching which encompasses every area of human existence. (Commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)

Dear Friends,

Rabbi Mordechai Gifter was a leading sage during the late 20th century who headed the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio. He was once invited by Western Reserve University to lecture on Talmudic jurisprudence and how it relates to society. His talk was later published by "The Press of Western Reserve University," under the title "Law in a Troubled World," and the following are excerpts from this article which are relevant to this season:

"The purpose of the law, as civilized society understands it, is to bring order into the lives and affairs of men, to guarantee - to use a Mishnaic phrase - that 'men shall not swallow themselves alive' (Avos 3:2, cf. Psalms 124:3). Where order exists in society, humankind can develop to the fullest extent its capacities for progress under freedom and liberty. A society governed by the law is therefore given a guarantee against anarchy, against chaos and disintegration.

"Though this be the purpose of the law, yet the law itself can become cold and sometimes cruel if it is designed only to meet the requisites of an orderly society. Indeed, there is law even among barbarians. The cruelty and tyranny of the dictator is also framed in the order of law. One is reminded of the words of the Psalmist, who, in speaking of the tyrant, describes him as being one 'who frames violence by statute' (Psalm 94:20). The development of civilized law knows, therefore, also of the development of equity in the law. Equity has served, we might say, as a guardian over the law, seeking to keep it in line with ethical norms.

"It has not been the purpose of the law, however, even when joined with equity, to develop the moral and ethical standards of society and of the individual. This has been the domain of philosophy and of religion. These values nurtured by philosophy, religion and other kindred branches of ethical and moral teaching became the norms within which the law developed and fructified.

"Talmudic jurisprudence is unique in that the very purpose of the law itself is the development of man's moral and ethical personality. The ambit of Talmudic law is a very wide one, indeed, the widest one can imagine, for its scope embraces every facet of human living. It is by no means limited to that body of legal matter encompassed by the term 'law' as we know it in modern society, namely, that which concerns itself only with those affairs of man vis-a-vis his fellow man. Since its purpose - i.e. secular law - is order in society, it deals with man as part of society; its ambit being the world of human relations. Man, the individual, per se is not the object of the law. Certainly the conscience of the individual is outside the scope of the law."

"Not so with Talmudic jurisprudence. The very same law which deals with torts, bailments, contracts, and criminal offenses deals also with man's duties of prayer, with ritual and ceremonial areas, even with problems of faith in the Divine Creator...The law embraced all of life, public as well as private, individual as well as social in character.

"The ultimate authority for Talmudic law is the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, containing the commandments of the Lord revealed at Sinai, and thereafter through Moses. ...The law, therefore, in the Talmudic sense, is the revelation of the Divine commandment, of the demands made upon man to raise himself above the level of the beast. It is the law which says to man: 'See, I set before thee life and good and death and evil, and thou shalt choose life' (Deuteronomy 30:15-19). It is the law which posits the freedom of man to choose the path to nobility and human dignity, the freedom of the individual to determine and direct his destiny, that freedom which is the primary source and the ultimate goal of the sovereignty of people revolting against the yokes of all forms of tyranny. Maimonides terms this freedom 'the pillar of the Law and the Commandment' (Hil. Teshuva 5:3). But yet the law, in stating this great human principle, bids and commands man as to the direction of his choice. Within this commandment, 'Thou shalt choose life,' is contained the entire body of the law, embracing all which is life.

"The law is so many times identified in the language of the Torah with righteousness - 'righteous statues and judgements' (Deut. 4:8) - for its purpose is to make of man a righteous being, who has chosen freely to be governed by moral and ethical values. The basic premise of the law is the never-ceasing consciousness that one stands always in the presence of his Creator. In order to insure this goal, the law sees the necessity for a complete system regulating the conduct of man, not merely in dealing with his fellow man, but also in dealing with himself. For he who attempts to achieve moral and ethical perfection and integrity in himself will, of necessity, deal in kind with his fellow man. Society is molded of the individuals who build it. An ordered and disciplined personality in the individual guarantees a well-balanced and harmonious society."

The above insights of Rabbi Gifter can give us a deeper understanding of the purpose of Yom Kippur. For example, Rabbi Gifter wrote that the goal of Torah law is to make the human being into a righteous being. The sacred day of Yom Kippur helps us to achieve this goal, for it is devoted to "tikun olam" - the fixing of the world - with a special emphasis on the fixing of our inner world. The prayers of Yom Kippur are therefore designed to help us acknowledge our mistakes and shortcomings - to recognize those aspects of ourselves which are "broken" - so that we can begin to repair the damage and become whole human beings.

Torah law is referred to as "halacha" - a term which literally means "the way to walk." Halacha is therefore viewed as the spiritual path that enables human beings to elevate and sanctify every area of human existence. Those who walk on this path will also discover the Divine image within each human being, including themselves. As Rabbi Gifter adds: "The word of the law is the gentle reminder to refrain from trespassing in the human soul, the handiwork of Almighty God."

I want to conclude with the following note that I recently received from Hazon participant, Barbara Ann Zweifler, as she expresses an idea which is related to the theme of this letter:

"I was just thinking last night that the Torah provides examples for us of every aspect that can possibly occur within the realms of human behavior and experience - from the depths of depravity to the heights of exaltation and beyond. If you pay careful attention to each of the examples, Torah will also provide you with the steps to take in order to navigate the negative and develop the positive. It is essentially the synthesis of all human experience, the encyclopedia of human nature, and the manual for the elevation of all souls."
Have a Shabbat Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)

Related Comments:

1. The above insights can give us a deeper understanding of the Torah's laws regarding ethical speech, as the observance of these laws help to develop an ordered and disciplined personality. And they remind the person that even when he engages in ordinary conversation, he is in the presence of the Creator. The Chofetz Chaim Foundation offers a short, daily e-mail lesson on the Torah's laws and teachings regarding "loshon hara" - negative or harmful speech. These laws and teachings are taken from the writings of the Chofetz Chaim, a leading sage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who dedicated his life to helping Jews rediscover the importance of the mitzvos regarding ethical speech. To subscribe, write to: alessonaday@chofetzchaimusa.org  .

2. It is written, "The world is built through lovingkindness" (Psalm 89:3 - translation of the Targum). The Chofetz Chaim Foundation also offers a short, daily lesson on "chesed" - lovingkindness, based on the writings of the Chofetz Chaim. To subscribe, write to: kindness@chofetzchaimusa.org

3. For some good articles on Yom Kippur, visit www.aish.com which also has a fascinating excerpt from a new book which discusses why bad things happen to good people. Additional articles on Yom Kippur can be found in their High Holiday section.  

4. The above article by Rabbi Gifter is also found in "Pirkei Torah" - a collection of his discourses on the "parsha" - Torah portion of each week (ArtScroll: www.artscroll.com ). It is in the section on "Mishpatim" (Exodus 21-24), which contains many of the social and civil laws of the Torah. His article cites a number of legal examples, as well as philosophical insights from classical Torah sources.

"Hazon - Our Universal Vision": www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/